For the third time since it opened Off-Broadway, I recently saw The 39 Steps – in which 4 actors by play multiple roles within the same scene and sometimes in the same sentence – to tell a complex spy story based on an early Alfred Hitchcock film. Balancing slapstick comedy with communication of important details about a complicated plot, the cast displays a seemingly infinite capacity to switch gears – and hats and identities, including accents – with split-second timing, and to use the same objects in a thousand different ways. Using a few set pieces -e.g. chairs, boxes, flashlights – and the actors’ physical commitment to the scene, we experience a chase atop a moving train, a car, a Scottish farmhouse on the windy moors, and the London Palladium among many others. This hilarious and inventive show demonstrates the power of improvisation to create new worlds by renaming, recombining, and reinventing what already exists, to imagine and realize unlimited possibilities by working within clearly-defined boundaries. This is key to the way we design our future in the real world, especially now when so many of us are having to adapt to changes we never anticipated would complicate our lives, and make the most out of existing resources.
These actors’ ability to move in and out of various identities is a “quick-change” skill developed and expanded through training in improvisation and theater games. And as actors on the stage of 21st century life, in which uncertainty is the “new normal,” we need exactly that kind of creative competence. Of all the experiential methods I have studied over the past 25 years – which include music therapy, theater, psychodrama, and writing – improvisation emerges as the most effect match for the urgency, pace of change and unique challenges of life in these times.
Technology has dissolved the old boundaries of time and space, there is no box to think out of anymore, and in today’s world mental health has more to do with our capacity to connect with an increasingly complex social world, manage uncertainty and exploit the opportunities for growth and expansion within the unpredictable and unfamiliar than it does with symptom reduction. Improvisation accomplishes this and more with a generous dose of humanity, humor, and warmth.
The May/June 2010 issue of the Ivey Business Journal promotes music and theater improvisation as a way to “learn a great deal about flexibility and agility in the face of ambiguity and time pressure. Consider jazz musicians, who jam, or work collaboratively to co-create music in real time. Or consider the theatre improviser who doesn’t have a script but creates the storyline with the other improvisers. The improvisers have learned to deal with diversity, ambiguity, interconnectedness and flux.”
As free-lancers and independent contractors progressively make up more and more of the workforce – recently estimated at 35% with business leaders predicting this trend will continue-rapidly evolving technologies and seismic economic and social shifts are redefining the rules and the structures through which we create our professional lives. With uncertainty as the new normal, improvisers have a significant advantage as we live through this great reshaping of the way things work. The mind and skill set gained through improvisation-based training is ideally matched to meet intensifying demands for innovative and inventive thinking on the fly, the ability to break down barriers to people across a wide range of social and cultural gaps, reach for resources and search for hidden connections linking “what is” to “what is emerging,” to new directions and inventive solutions that are the mark of innovation.